I went to the SEC’s website, and as I scanned the document I thought to myself: Has Bear Stearns Asset Management completely lost its mind? There is a difference between being clever and being intelligent. As I printed out the document to read it more thoroughly, I put aside the rest of my work and said: “Matt, you are right; this is important.” I was surprised to read that funds managed by BSAM invested in the unrated first loss risk (equity) of CDOs. In my view, the underlying assets were neither suitable nor appropriate investments for the retail market. I did not have time for a thorough review, so I picked a CDO investment underwritten by Citigroup in March 2007 bearing in mind that if the Everquest IPO came to market, some of the proceeds would pay down Citigroup’s $200 million credit line. Everquest held the “first loss” risk, usually the riskiest of all of the CDO tranches (unless you do a “constellation” type deal with CDO hawala), and it was obvious to me that even the investors in the supposedly safe AAA tranches were in trouble. Time proved my concerns warranted, since the CDO triggered an event of default in February 2008, at which time Standard & Poor’s downgraded even the original safest AAA tranche to junk.

The equity is the investment with the most leverage, the highest nominal return, and is the most difficult to accurately price. The CDO equity investments were from CDOs underwritten by UBS, Citigroup, Merrill, and other investment banks.

Based on what I read, Everquest’s original assets had significant exposure to subprime mortgage loans, and the document disclosed it, “a substantial majority of the [asset-backed] CDOs in which we hold equity have invested primarily in [residential mortgage-backed securities] backed by collateral pools of subprime residential mortgages.” Based on my rough estimates, it was as high as 40 percent to 50 percent.

I explained my concerns to Matt in a general way. Among other concerns: (1) money from the IPO would pay down Everquest’s $200 million line of credit to Citigroup; (2) the loan helped Everquest buy some of its assets including CDOs and a CDO-squared from two hedge funds managed by BSAM, namely the Bear Stearns High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Fund that had been founded in 2003 and the Bear Stearns High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Leverage Fund (“Enhanced Leverage Fund”) launched in August 2006; and (3) the assets appeared to include substantial subprime exposure.

Matt Goldstein posted his story on Business Week’s site later that day. Initially it was called: The Everquest IPO: Buyer Beware, but after protests from Bear Stearns Asset Management, Business Week changed the title to Bear Stearns’ Subprime IPO. I hardly think that pleased Bear Stearns more.

Ralph Cioffi contacted me about the Business Week article. He said that dozens of IPOs like Everquest had been done—mostly offshore so as not to deal with the SEC. According to Ralph, BSAM’s hedge funds and Stone Tower’s private equity funds would own about 70 percent of Everquest stock shares (equity), and they had no plans to sell “a single share at the IPO date.” They planned to use the IPO proceeds to pay down the Citigroup credit line and possibly buy out unaffiliated private equity investors.

I responded that verbal assurances that there are no plans to sell a share at the IPO date are meaningless. Publicly traded shares can be sold anytime. But even if the funds kept their controlling shares, it was not good news. Retail investors would have only a minority interest which would be a disadvantage if they had a dispute with the managers.

Ralph claimed that subprime was “actually a very small percent of Everquest’s assets.” He reasoned that on a market value basis the exposure to subprime was actually negative because Everquest hedged its risk. Technically, Ralph might have been correct—but the registration statement for the Everquest IPO itself suggested otherwise: “The hedges will not cover all of our exposure to [securitizations] backed primarily by subprime mortgage loans.”

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu.